The Celestial Earth – “subtle bodies of Light”

CORBIN DESCRIBES SOPHIA, the divine presence of wisdom for our world in an intermediate imaginal world – the Celestial Earth, as follows:

“Between the intellectual and the sensible… [is] a ‘spiritual corporeity’ which represents the Dwelling, the Divine Presence, for our world. This Dwelling is Wisdom itself, Sophia.”[i]

Sophia is “the imaginal place of the Divine Presence in our world”. Sophia as the Celestial Earth is typified in the Shi’ite gnosis by Fatima, “the Sophia of the Shi’ite theosophy and cosmology”.[ii] Thus Sophianity is for the human being to accede here and now to the Celestial Earth, to the world of Hurqalya, world of ‘celestial corporeity’, which is that of the subtle bodies of Light.[iii]

“the Soul of the Perceiver”

THE QUANTUM WORLD of nonmaterial symmetries and archetypes also requires new ways of envisioning the world, description and language.

The importance of the imagination and an inner non-physical reality behind our physical external world is understood by quantum physicists; in particular Wolfgang Pauli, F. David Peat and David Bohm.

Pauli argued that the psychologist and the physicist are engaged in a complimentary quest. Hence he advocated that the:

“[I]nvestigation of scientific knowledge directed outwards should be supplemented by an investigation of this knowledge directed inwards. The former process is directed to adjusting our knowledge to external objects; the latter should bring to light the archetypal images used in the creation of our scientific theories. Only by combining both these directions of research may complete understanding be obtained.”[iv]

Psychiatrist Anthony Stevens states: “The relationship between the physical world we perceive and our cognitive formulations concerning that world is predicated upon the fact that the soul of the perceiver and that which is recognised by perception are subject to an order thought to be objective.”[v]

Stevens notes that, for Pauli, “…the archetypes which order our perceptions and ideas are themselves the product of an objective order which transcends both the human mind and the external world.”[vi]

[i] Henry Corbin, ‘Towards a Chart of the Imaginal’, Temenos 1 (1981), 30.

[ii] Ibid, 31.

[iii] Ibid, 32-33.

[iv] Wolfgang Pauli, ‘The influence of archetypal ideas on the scientific theories of Kepler’ in: C.G. Jung and W. Pauli, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), 208.

[v] See Anthony Stevens, Archetype – A Natural History of the Self (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 74.

[vi] Anthony Stevens, ‘Thoughts on the Psychobiology of Religion and the Neurobiology of Archetypal Experience’, Zygon, v.21, no.1 (1986), 19.

Imaginal-Visionary Landscapes

Landscape is a connector of the soul with Being.

– Belden C. Lane

Our perceptions are colored by preconception and desire… the landscapes in which history unfolds are both real, that is, profound in their physical effects on mankind, and not real, but mere projections, artifacts of human perception.

– Barry Lopez

LANDSCAPES ARE imaginal and they are visionary.[i] They are both timeless and they are time-bound, hence particular spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes predominate in particular historical epochs.

GEOGRAPHERS HAVE FOR A LONG TIME understood the idea that our landscapes spring forth from personal and collective imagination.

However it is the postmodern geographers who place most importance on the role of the imagination in creating landscape. In part this is due to their understanding and receptivity to depth, analytical and archetypal psychology, where there has been a revival of interest in the image, the imagination and the imaginal. It is an old way of finding meaning and it is a theory of knowledge which has had a relatively recent revival in the twentieth century.

Seminal in the revival of this epistemology, or imaginal theory of knowledge and meaning in recent times are such thinkers as Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious; Bachelard, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne, who raised poetic imagination to a level equal in importance to scientific knowledge; Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) anthropologist and ethnologist, regarded as the “father of modern anthropology”, who spoke of cultures which did not neglect the feminine guide of the imagination, the creative Sophia; Henry Corbin, with his translations of the ancient Persian pre-Islamic Mystics and the Mazdean, Shi’ite and Sufi mystics (thirteen centuries in which the imaginal has been the focal point); as well as the romantics, the surrealists and most recently postmodernists.

Gilbert Durand concludes that imagination gives “the possibility of experiencing the noumenal… the imaginal is the New World that allows the revival of this gnosis”.[ii]

It is however in the consideration of sacred landscapes and sacred places that the role of the imagination becomes most apparent.

[i] The term imaginal means relating to, or resembling an image (Cf. Collins English Dictionary, London (1979), 731). The term is used most notably by such thinkers as Henry Corbin and Gilbert Durand.

[ii] Gilbert Durand ‘Exploration of the Imaginal’, Spring (1971), 88.

Perceptual Geography

TODAY, WITHIN THE GEOGRAPHER’S profession, the concept of landscape is recognized as a changing and mobile one. Moreover, amongst geographers landscape is increasingly regarded as a perceptual concept and a multiplicity of landscapes are recognised. The idea of landscape as a ‘way of seeing’ has overtaken the positivist idea of landscape as reducible to a series of objective physical traits. As Cosgrove has remarked:

“Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of the world. Landscape is a way of seeing the world.”[i]

And Yi-Fu Tuan notes whereas “in the early 1960s a new way of doing human-cultural geography emerged… it now goes generally by the name of perceptual”.[ii]

In the 1960s perceptual geography came of age. David Lowenthal, for example, argued that :

“Essential perception of the world , in short, embraces every way of looking at it, conscious and unconscious, blurred and distinct, objective and subjective, inadvertent and deliberate, literal and schematic. Perception itself is never unalloyed: sensing, thinking, feeling, and believing are simultaneous independent processes.”[iii]

[i] Cosgrove(1984) Social and Symbolic Landscape, 13.

[ii] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v.81, 4 (1991)’, 697.

[iii] David Lowenthal, ‘Geography, Experience, and Imagination: Towards a Geographical Epistemology’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 51, no.3, September (1961), 251.

The Revelatory ‘Anthropocentric Landscape’

BY STANDING HIMSELF in spiritual opposition to the Nature/Earth Landscape and hence separating himself away from this landscape, Judaic and Christian man was enabled to objectify and secularize it.

The Canaanite and pagan pervasive I-Thou relationship with a polytheistic sacred Nature/Earth Landscape was driven underground by the powerful, transcendent, patriarchal, monotheistic religions and their adherents who perceived the spirituality and religions of these peoples as a threat to their hegemony.

The relationship with the natural landscape was to become increasingly I-It and de-sacrilised. The new focus was now on man and his salvation in an Anthropocentric Landscape, separated from the Nature/Earth Landscape, which had become perceived as profane. This in turn would open up the way for scientific study and the technological and materialist, manipulated, landscape of the modern era. It was to be the landscape of I-It relations par excellence. Belden C. Lane describes the new state of affairs, or rather the new landscape focus:

“In much of Jewish and Christian theology the freedom of a transcendent God of history has regularly been contrasted with the false and earthbound deities of fertility and soil. God has been removed from the particularity of place, extracted from the natural environment. Hence, the tendency in western civilization has been toward the triumph of history over nature, time over space, male dominance over female dependence, and technological mastery of the land over a gentle reverence for life… The result has been a rampant secularization of nature and activism of spirit in western life, leaving us exhausted in our mastery of a world stripped of magic and mystery.”[i]

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan argues, it is now generally agreed that the “intense attachment to land based on the belief that the sacred soil is the abode of the gods waned as man acquired increasing control over nature and as Christianity spread to dominate the Western World”.[ii]

FROM AN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND PERSPECTIVE, ecologist Geoff Park recounts the relationship of Maori to the land prior to the advent of missionary Christianity:

“Before contact with the missionaries of the 19th century, Maori believed their physical health and wellbeing were achieved in two principle ways. One was by maintaining the mauri of their places – the life force by which their natural elements cohere. The other was by lifelong observance of the laws of tapu. Rites and rituals broke down the barriers between people and other species, allowed people to flow spiritually into nature and for nature’s rhythms to permeate their own being. A host of daily tasks depended on conscious connection, both to benefit nature and limit human excesses.”[iii]

In contrast, the early European explorers, scientists and colonialists were outsiders who found the landscape harsh and despite using Maori guides and experts, they were sometimes patronising and critical of the Maori relationship with the landscape.

The new colonizers brought with them a new vision of the landscape. The New Zealand landscape – as exemplified by the vision of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), the British politician and driving force behind the early colonisation of New Zealand, via the direction of The New Zealand Company – had exploitative and monetary value.

The new colonialists also desired to populate and tame the New Zealand landscape. One could term these landscape perspectives as anthropocentric and materialist. Generally the colonialist and the missionary view from London was that the Maori Nature/Earth Landscape perspective and hence Maori spirituality was primitive, backward and in need of salvation:

“Clearing the land was equated with Christianising the country. Converting the Maori to Christianity was seen as one’s duty inextricably bound up with another, that of “civilizing” the landscape. The firm assumption was that both duties would inevitably bring improvement. By the time the twentieth century arrived the landscape was regarded as an adversary against which the settlers pitted themselves.”[iv]

An example of an early missionary’s attitude to the Maori Nature/Earth Landscape perspective and spirituality is given in a sermon by the young German missionary Cort Schnackenberg at one of the Wesleyan West Coast mission stations in 1844. Schnackenberg admonishes Maori to:

“…apply the same rule to the cultivation of your hearts – the light from Heaven is shining upon you – look at yourself in that light and if you find your mind, your heart to be a wilderness, cultivate it in the same manner as you do your fields, cut down the bush, great and small – spare no sin… dig your hearts by deep repentance that it may become soft and fit to receive the seed of God’s word – if it strikes root within you. Watch it carefully and weed your hearts ever afterwards until the harvest – in times past the preaching of God’s work produced no fruit in this place, because it fell on strong ground, or was choked in the bush.”[v]

Park notes that while Schnackenberg and his wife were told by European visitors that they were living in the finest place in New Zealand, this:

“representative of religion committed to getting away from nature could only see what he called ‘The Tapu of Mokau’ cruelly infusing the lives of the river people. [Maori] were intelligent enough, even ‘touched occasionally by nobility’, but their primitive union with nature had empowered ‘the works of the devil’ – pagan spirits, cruelty and superstition – to operate unchecked.”[vi]

However, as is often the case, there is another side. This writer’s own nineteenth century northern Irish ancestors who settled in Canterbury opined in letters sent home after six months in New Zealand:

“I feel as happy as a king. I have not been to church, mass or meeting but twice since I left home and that was in Australia. There is not a house of worship within 25 miles of me. I used to have some queer notions about religion and you need not be surprised if they are queer still (such as no personal Devil yet Devils many). I have nature in her truest form and revelation for my guide and with God for friend and Father I may be little worse than many who like the parson’s horses find their way to the church gate but there they leave their religion behind and if far from church be near grace. I am far enough from church but I sincerely believe New Zealand is as near heaven as any country. But for the people I can not say… there are times when the more lonesome the place and the wilder the scene, I take the most delight.” “[vii]

It must be admitted that other early Europeans, or the new Pakeha, also saw the landscape as inherently beautiful because it was God’s handiwork.[viii]

By contrast, Lynn White, JR writing in Science, 1967, is explicitly damning of Judeo-Christianity’s impact on the Nature/Earth Landscape.[ix] He argues in his now famous paper ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, that modern science and technology have grown out of Judeo-Christian values of man’s transcendence of and mastery over nature, which has caused an ecological crisis:

“The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture… Our daily habits of action … are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology… We continue to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms… By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”[x]

From the thirteenth century until the late eighteenth century – when the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists – every major scientist up to and including Leibniz and Newton explained his motivations in religious terms. Thus modern science “is an extrapolation of natural theology” and modern technology can be at least partly explained by the “Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature” because:

“Over a century ago science and technology – hitherto quite separate activities – joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecological effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt… Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes towards man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”[xi]

The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian – that is “that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man” – is irrelevant; because no new set of basic values has been accepted by our society. Both “our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny”.[xii]

Here again a qualification should be added. Different spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes can be held and interwoven at the same time – either by individuals or by different sectors of the same society.

In this regard Peter Bishop points out, in a note to this author, that care should be taken that the view of non-western religions in terms of environmentalism should not be too idealized nor should be the “historical suddenness and definitiveness of a shift to a modernist, secular landscape”. In particular, Bishop argues:

“There have been numerous counter-trends. For example, the bulk of Europe’s population in the 18th and even 19th century were peasants and farm labourers. Their relationship to nature sustained continuity with much earlier beliefs. Much of the European Romantic tradition valued nature in terms of its spirituality. Nature writing, especially in North America was a major influence throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.” [xiii]

A LANDSCAPE ‘FOCUS OF PERCEPTION’ is not necessarily a totality of landscape perceptions in a particular historical period nor is it mutually exclusive, although it can be a major trend. Hence an analysis of landscape should not be reductive – rather it requires an attitude of circumspection and awareness of complexity while still taking cognisance of predominant phenomenology.

In other words, what we are talking about here is a predominant spiritual imaginal-visionary landscape ‘focus of perception’ – in this case the revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape. If White’s and the other theorists’ arguments are accepted, there will still be exceptions and counter-trends.

[i] Lane(1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 19. See also: Walter Harrelson, From Fertility Cult to Worship (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969), especially Chapter One; Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1965), Chapter One; Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 184-5.

[ii] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Geopiety’, 26.

[iii] Geoff Park, Nga Uruora – The Groves of Life (Victoria University Press, 1995), 134.

[iv] Trudie McNaughton (ed.), Countless Signs — The New Zealand Landscape in Literature (Auckland: Reed Methuen Ltd., 1986), 8.

[v] Park (1995) Nga Uruora, 134-135.

[vi] Ibid, 134.

[vii] Letters from James and Hamilton McIlwrath (Canterbury: September 8, 1862 and December 1, 1863 ) to parents John and Jane Logan McIlwrath and brothers in County Down, Ireland.

[viii] McNaughton(1986) Countless Signs, 6-7.

[ix] Lynn White, Jr ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science, v.155, no. 3767 (10 March 1967), 1203-1207.

[x] Ibid, 1205.

[xi] Ibid, 1206.

[xii] Ibid, 1207.

[xiii] Peter Bishop, ‘Note to the author’, September, 2009.

Postmodern Spirituality

THE RENAISSANCE OF ‘SPIRITUALITY’ has been associated with postmodernism.

“Postmodernity as spiritual condition” is argued by Vanhoozer. The condition of postmodernity “is neither simply philosophical nor simply socio-political, but spiritual, a condition in which belief and behavior come together in the shape of an embodied spirit”.[i]

Ecofeminist, postmodern theologian Carol P. Christ argues that together with “many spiritual feminists, ecofeminists, ecologists, antinuclear activists, and others” she shares “the conviction that the crisis that threatens the destruction of the earth is not only social, political, economic, and technological, but is at root spiritual”.[ii]

Frederick Mark Gedlicks argues that for “religious pluralism to flourish in a postmodern era, the predominant expression of belief must be spiritual, rather than fundamentalist”.[iii] He distinguishes fundamentalism, metanarratives, discrimination and government power from postmodernism, religious liberty, nondiscrimination, government absence and spirituality. That the concepts of ‘spirituality’ and ‘postmodernism’ have both been linked in De Paul Law Review (2005), a secular law journal dealing with the laws of state and society, would indicate perhaps that both concepts have now ‘come of age’.

GORDON D. KAUFMAN (1925-2011), the renowned American liberal theologian whose research, writing and teachings had a profound influence on constructive and systematic theology – gives an early working example of postmodern spiritual theology. He places an emphasis on mystery, imagination, and imaginal construction. Kaufman maintains theology is, and always has been, an activity of “imaginative construction” by persons attempting to put together as comprehensive and coherent a picture as they could of humanity in the world under God.[iv]

For Kaufman theology as “imaginative construction” contrasts with the conventional conceptions of theology whereby the work of theologians is “understood to consist largely in exposition of religious doctrine or dogma (derived from the Bible and other authoritative sources)”.[v] Rather than concentrating on traditional doctrines, dogmas and their systematic presentation in a new historical situation, Kaufman places emphasis on imaginative construction and the powers of the human imagination: ‘symbolic perspective’ and plurality.

Hence Christianity is just one of a plurality of world views. He stresses de-emphasizing traditional doctrines in new historical situations, and the de-emphasis of the importance of literal historicity. All this exemplifies a postmodernist theological perspective.[vi]

[i] Vanhoozer(2003) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, 23.

[ii] Carol P. Christ, ‘Rethinking Theology and Nature’, in: Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ (eds.), Weaving the Visions – New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (Harper: San Francisco, 1989), 314.

[iii] Frederick Mark Gedicks, ‘Spirituality, Fundamentalism, Liberty: Religion at the End of Modernity’, De Paul Law Review, (2005), Abstract. See ‘Social Science Network’: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm? abstract id=634262.

[iv] Gordon D. Kaufman, In the Face of Mystery – A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), ix.

[v] Ibid, 40.

[vi] Cf. Sheila Davaney (ed.), Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991).

A “Psychological Geography”

IN 1953, HENRY CORBIN argued for a psychological geography, a new line of study in which the “intention is to discover the psychological factors that come into play in the conformation given to a landscape”. Thus:

“Out of geographical studies, a new line of study, described as psychological geography, has developed in our day: The intention is to discover the psychological factors that come to play in the conformation given to a landscape. The phenomenological presupposition implicit in research of this kind is that the essential functions of the soul, the psyche, include the projection of a nature, a physis; conversely, each physical structure discloses the mode of psycho-spiritual activity that brings it into operation. In this sense, the categories of the sacredness “which possess the soul” can be recognized in the landscape with which it surrounds itself and in which it shapes its habitat, whether by projecting the vision on an ideal iconography, or by attempting to inscribe and reproduce a model of the vision on the actual earthly ground.”[i]

Corbin concludes: “This is why each of the hierophanies of our visionary geography offers an example of a case of psycho-geography unlike any other”.[ii]

We are defined by our landscapes. The categories of sacredness “which possess the soul” can be recognized in the archetypal landscape(s) with which it surrounds itself. This is the essence of the inner Sophianic Wisdom Archetype – within the Postmodern Ecological Landscape.

Perhaps no other postmodernist ecological writer, explorer of the psyche and lover of the natural world, gives a better lyrical working illustration of the Sophia Wisdom Archetype (Anima Mundi/World Soul and Mundus Imaginalis) – the inner landscape perception within the Postmodern Ecological Landscape in our time, than does Barry Lopez in this passage from Arctic Dreams:

“I bowed. I bowed to what knows no deliberating legislature or parliament, no religion, no competing theories of economics, an expression of allegiance with the mystery of life. I looked out over the Bering Sea and brought my hands folded to the breast of my parka and bowed from the waist deeply toward the north, that great strait filled with life, the ice and the water. I held the bow to the pale sulphur sky at the northern rim of the earth. I held the bow until my back ached, and my mind was emptied of its categories and designs, its plans and speculations. I bowed before the simple evidence of the moment in my life in a tangible place on the earth that was beautiful. When I stood I thought I glimpsed my own desire. The landscape and the animals were like something found at the end of a dream. The edges of the real landscape became one with the edges of something I had dreamed. But what I had dreamed was only a pattern, some beautiful pattern of light. The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution.”[iii]

[i] Ibid, 30.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Lopez (1988) Arctic Dreams, 414.

A ‘Nonsense Concept’

WHILE MANY WESTERN THEOLOGIANS during the twentieth century had become uncomfortable with the concept of spirit and spirituality, Western theology was itself under increasing philosophical attack and siege. Spirituality, metaphysics and theology became ‘nonsense concepts’ with the advent of logical positivism, the philosophical school based on linguistic analysis in the 1920s and 1930s. Logical positivism rejected metaphysical speculation and held that the only meaningful statements are those that are analytic or can be tested empirically. Based on linguistic analysis (to clarify the meanings of statements and questions) and on demands for criteria and procedures of empirical verification (for establishing at least in-principle truth or falsity of statements, by observation or experiment), logical positivism was essentially a systematic attack on metaphysics by demanding observations for conferring meaning. Metaphysics was rejected as nonsense.

In the modern world of the twentieth century it often seemed that ‘spirituality’ was on very tenuous ground as regards meaning. Evans (1993) has argued that the skeptical contemporary world-view regarding spirituality is to some extent in all of us: “It is part of the largely unconscious mind-set of our culture”.[i]

‘Secular’ Postmodern Spirituality

HOWEVER, UNEXPECTEDLY spirituality has returned in a ‘secular’ postmodern age. While ‘spirituality’ cannot be proved as such, the concepts of ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ have not been disproved, nor have they been successfully rendered nonsense concepts.

In the postmodern era, the positivists and the sceptics brandishing scientism, have themselves come in for criticism. The Enlightenment model and modernist science with its off-shoot, technology, has been discredited as contributing to the degradation of the environment and threatening the planet. There is a new scepticism which questions whether scientism and its philosophical axioms are the best epistemological route forward, let alone the planet’s saviour. The public is increasingly turning against a purist science and technology without debate on values, for example unease over biogenetic engineering. In the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century, positivism and scientism have been found wanting by many.

One can not live by positivism and scientism – at best they are tools for clarifying meaning, but are not the meaning itself. Spirituality, it would seem, has escaped and we are still searching for meaning. New Zealand botanist and ecologist, Philip Simpson illustrates this with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which he argues:

“…provides an ethical or spiritual dimension to human life that is ecocentric rather than egocentric. Some see the living Earth concept in mystical terms. There is no doubt that a competitive model of Earth is damaging to our relationship to nature, and science is strangely lacking in providing meaning.”[ii]

Spiritual reality is being recognised, despite a lack of proof; while science is found to be lacking in meaning, even by some scientists. However the question of what ‘spirituality’ is, or how one defines it, remains.

One thing is certain however, ‘spirituality’ has become secularised. Jon Alexander maintains that the trend to use the word spirituality in an experiential and generic sense appeals to our irenic age but it also presents some theological difficulties: “Today we encounter the word spirituality so frequently in our reading and conversation that it is surprising to learn that its use is a recent phenomenon.”[iii]

John Elias argues that the 1960s began with the announcement that God was dead and it seemed that the United States had finally become a secular society – but by the 1970s some scholars were already talking about the return of the sacred and others were maintaining that the sacred had never left, except among certain social scientists. Elias maintains certain words are now heard that had virtually passed from usage, even in religious circles:

“While the word religious remained in use, the words spiritual and spirituality were rarely uttered during the decades when the focus was on the secularization of society and its institutions. Today these words are used without apology in both religious and non-religious circles. Social scientists use the term spiritual or sacred as a category to explain understandings of selfhood and human striving. Religionists use the words to highlight the highly personal elements of one’s religious life.”[iv]

Whereas in earlier centuries spirituality had been equated with religion, now as Walter Principe points out, there were many aspects of religion which were less related to the spiritual ideal and some which were even opposed to it.[v] Van Ness argues that while Nietzsche was perhaps the most explicit in charting an irreligious spiritual path, spirituality born of radical scepticism is also found in the naturalistic and nondogmatic views of some Oriental sages.

A SPIRITUAL LIFE in a “world come of age” was notably also the argument of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis for his part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was very impressed by his non-religious co-conspirators who were also executed and while he “characteristically identified spiritual life in theological terms, as life shaped by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, his last writings place an emphasis on wholeness and vitality”, which are the “hallmarks of a more general rendering of the spiritual dimension of human existence.”[vi]

Van Ness states that in Bonhoeffer’s last writings “The positive evaluation of the secular world begun in the Ethics was even more firmly stated in the idiom of “the world come of age”. Bonhoeffer argued that “God is increasingly being pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience.” [vii]

If God was increasingly being pushed out of a world come of age as Bonhoeffer argued – Bonhoeffer’s relation to the philosophy of Nietzsche is complex. However in his prison theological deliberations he seemed to move beyond Barth’s dialectical appreciation of Nietzsche to a “closer embrace of a religionless or secular spirituality such as was championed by the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra”.[viii] Van Ness states that from “Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard and Barth also, Bonhoeffer learned that religion, including the Christian religion, was part of what an authentically spiritual life must criticize and move beyond.”[ix]

Given the many compromises of historical Christianity, some measure of worldliness and freedom to criticise was indispensable to a profound spiritual life. Both Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer opposed tyranny in both its secular and religious forms and both recognised the importance of spiritual discipline – for Nietzsche it was solitude and for Bonhoeffer it was silence. Both have a simplicity which confounds them being classified as specifically religious or irreligious.[x] Thus, the authentic spiritual life had to move beyond the dogma of monotheistic and often fundamentalist patriarchal religions in the West.

Spiritual Revolutionaries

THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION in the latter half of the twentieth century has embraced the new wave of secular spirituality. This has involved a challenge to, and a rebellion against, traditional patriarchal religions and of necessity a re-definition of what is essential in religion for women – a reconsideration of spirituality.

The roll-call perhaps begins with the coolly observant French academic and writer Simone de Beauvoir who, although not professing to be a feminist at the time of writing The Second Sex in the 1940s, has had a pioneering role in the challenge by feminist philosophy to the prevailing patriarchal ideologies of the twentieth century[xi]. Then there was Merlin Stone who examined and dissected the archaeological evidence for the Goddess and the patriarchal Judeo-Christian cultures’ suppression of women and their matriarchal religions[xii]. Stone was closely followed by Naomi Goldenberg, a psychologist of religion and feminist theologian who maintained that “When feminists succeed in changing the position of women in Christianity and Judaism, they will shake these religions at their roots.” [xiii]

American academic Mary Daly is perhaps the most damning, challenging, radical and creative of the recent feminist theologians and philosophers. A former nun and a Professor of Theology at Boston College, her critique of the detrimental effects of patriarchal religion is chilling[xiv]. More recently Muslim feminists, for example Irshad Manji (2003), have risked their lives by taking on fundamentalist patriarchal Islam.[xv]

Feminist philosophers and theologians have confronted the authority of the dominant patriarchal monotheistic Western religious traditions and establishments head-on. They have realised that women’s spirituality and dignity have been plundered and defiled along with the natural world. Based on this they have searched out and created alternatives. For example, the association of postmodern theology with process theology, the ecological movement and the feminization of the divine, is pivotal in the work of ecofeminist theologian Carol P. Christ[xvi] Postmodernist arguments are frequently used by feminists. For example, Ellen Leonard argues that no theology can claim universality and all theologies are political:

“Traditional Western theology is now seen as determined by dominant world powers and groups. The critique of this theology comes from the “new theologies” which argue that Western theology is culture-bound, church-centred, male-dominated, age-dominated, procapitalist, anticommunist, nonrevolutionary and overly theoretical.”[xvii]

These feminist revolutionaries reject dualistic and hierarchical thinking which devalues women, body and nature.[xviii] They demand a re-visioning of the divine and a new theology in the light of contemporary experience – especially woman’s experience.

For religious archetypes, icons and myths, feminists have harkened back to a pre-patriarchial era when the Goddess or Goddesses and polytheistic Gods were worshipped.[xix] Feminist theologians have gone inwards into the imagination to focus on the symbolic meaning of the Goddess, Goddesses and other Gods, allowing them to explore new patterns of spirituality.[xx]

Like their foremothers of the matriarchial ‘pagan’ religions, feminist theologians have turned to Mother Earth and tried to formulate a spiritual search which is nature and earth-centred. Ecofeminists are at the forefront of the ecology and ecospirituality movements. They have challenged traditional philosophy and theology by advocating a holistic understanding and epistemology with recognition of the spiritual interconnectedness of all of creation and co-responsibility for our world.[xxi] Ecofeminists have combined a critique of the destructiveness of patriarchal attitudes to nature and women, with an affirmation of a spiritual search which is nature-earth centred rather than anthropocentric. Ecotheologian and Catholic Priest, Thomas Berry argues that:

“The greatest support for the feminist, anti-patriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement…What has become progressively clear is the association of the feminine issue with the ecological issue.”[xxii]

Ariel Salleh maintains that:

“Ecofeminism confronts not only social institutions and practices, but the language and logics by which Western patriarchy constructs its relation to nature. In doing so, it has already travelled a long way down the very same road that deep ecological opponents of anthropocentricism are looking for.”[xxiii]

[i] Donald Evans (1993) Spirituality and Human Nature, 102.

[ii] Philip Simpson interview, ‘Exploring the Gaia Hypothesis’ in Nga Kaitiaki, no. 21. August/ September (1989), 10.

[iii] Jon Alexander (1980) ‘What Do Recent Writers Mean by Spirituality?’, 247.

[iv] John L. Elias (1991) ‘The Return of Spirituality: Contrasting Interpretations’, 457.

[v] Cf. Walter Principe (1983) ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’, 139.

[vi] Peter H. Van Ness (1991) ‘Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche and Secular Spirituality’, 331.

[vii] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald Fuller et al, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1972), 341. Note: Nevertheless,“God is the beyond in the midst of our life”, 282.

[viii] Ibid, 337.

[ix] Ibid, 338.

[x] Ibid, 339.

[xi] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: New English Library, 1970), 352.

[xii] Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

[xiii] See Changing of the Gods – Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston:Beacon Press, 1979), 5.

[xiv] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father –Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Gyn/Ecology – The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); Pure Lust – Elemental Feminist Philosophy (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).

[xv] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (Canada: Random House, 2003).

[xvi] Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-imagining the Divine in the World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 ).

[xvii] Ellen Leonard, ‘Experience as a source for theology: A Canadian and feminist perspective’, Studies in Religion v.19, no.2 (1990), 146.

[xviii] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women, New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975) and ‘Ecology and Human Liberation: A Conflict between the Theology of History and the Theology of Nature?’ in To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 57-70. See also Marsha Hewitt, ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, Studies in Religion v.20, no.3 (1991), 271.

[xix] See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (1976); William G. Dever, ‘Women’s popular religion, suppressed in the Bible, now revealed by archaeology’, Biblical Archaeology Review, v.17, no.2 ( 1991), 64-65; Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); – Myths, Legends and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Charlene Spretnak, ed., The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1982).

[xx] Marsha Hewitt (1991) ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, 157.

[xxi] See Sally Mcfague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women , New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975); Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (Santa Fe: N.M. Bear & Co, 1986); Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-Imagining the Divine in the World (2003).

[xxii] See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988) ,160-161.

[xxiii] Ariel Salleh, ‘The Ecofeminism/Deep Ecology Debate: A Reply to Patriarchal Reason’, Environmental Ethics v.14, no.3 (1992), 215.